Exhibition projects insight into past of city’s picture theatres

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The dreary courtyard outside the Leichhardt Library is a world away from the fabulous picture theatres that once graced Sydney, but from today a fascinating new exhibition opens on the library’s walls offering a glimpse into the golden years of cinemas in this town.

While the exhibit focuses on the inner west, across Sydney throughout the 20th century some of the grandest, gaudiest and most fantastic architectural gestures, replete in gilded baroque flourishes and marble statues, were built in the form of cinemas, bringing a bit of Hollywood glamour (via ancient Rome and Versailles) with them.

We can still visit the State Theatre and the Capitol and revel in their gothic revival theatrics, yet they are but two of a long line of cinemas that once stood proud, with the St James, the Paris, the Prince Edward, the Minerva, the Liberty, the Wintergarden and most depressing of all, the Regent, all gone.

Today’s PS’s spotlight shines on some of the gems we have tragically lost over the years, among them the beachside Boomerang in Coogee, where a young Bud Tingwell became inspired to become an actor.

The Auburn Civic, opened in February 1934, was the largest suburban cinema in Sydney with seating for more than 2000 people and boasted a 13-rank Wurlitzer, one of only 12 made. It was demolished in 1973.

But the most impressive cinemas were in the city.

The Century was opened on George Street in 1938, an Art Deco gem, it was demolished in 1983 after spending the last decade of its life as a pinball parlour.

Also on George Street was the Globe Newsreel Theatre, which endured a sleazy chapter in the 1950s over a scandal involving prostitutes plying their trade in the front stalls.

On Castlereagh Street there was the Mayfair Theatre, another Art Deco triumph built in 1934 that is said to still hold the record for the longest continuous run of any feature film in Sydney: South Pacific, which opened on Boxing Day 1958 and closed at Easter of 1962.

On Pitt Street stood the Variety Theatre. Opened in 1934 it made front-page news in 1954 when it caught on fire and the projectionist was seen dashing into the street with his clothes on fire.

Leon Fink, owner of the Regent Theatre in 1979 before it was demolished. Photo by George Lipman/Fairfax Media.

Leon Fink, owner of the Regent Theatre in 1979 before it was demolished. Photo: George Lipman/Fairfax Media

But of course the grandest of them all was the beautiful Regent Theatre built on George Street in 1928 only to be ripped down in the middle of the night in 1989 by property developer Leon Fink amid howls of protests from the public.

The Regent operated as a cinema for most of its life, but from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s it was a popular venue for music concerts and stage shows, and in its final years hosted many large-scale musicals and performances by the Australian Opera and Australian Ballet.

The Regent boasted one of the largest chandeliers in Australia, seen here under-going major restoration work in 1976.

The Regent boasted one of the largest chandeliers in Australia, seen here undergoing major restoration work in 1976. Photo: Pearce/Fairfax Media

Many of the theatre’s elaborate fittings and marble statues were sold at an auction in 1990, and can be found in a number of locations around Sydney. A lightweight plastic replica of the Art Deco crystal chandelier from the Regent’s foyer now hangs in the foyer of the nearby Metro Theatre.

The Regent was where Sir Robert Helpmann made his debut, where Fonteyn and the Kirov Ballet had danced, where Liza Minnelli, Shirley Maclaine and Marcel Marceau had packed ’em in.

 Shirley MacLaine arriving in Sydney today for her concert tour in 1979. Photo by Trevor James Robert Dallen/Fairfax Media.

Shirley MacLaine arriving in Sydney for her concert tour in 1979. Photo: Trevor James Robert Dallen/Fairfax Media

It offered a plug-in phone service in the lounge foyer, a telegram service and the registration of seat numbers for patrons expecting a call. There was a trained nurse in attendance in the ladies’ rest room, a lost property office, a cloak room, and a commissionaire to hail you a taxi.

Sadly now all a distant memory.

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